Halifax’s Board of Police Commissioners met Wednesday, Aug. 2 with a deceptively important motion on the agenda: 10.2.1 Budget Process Refresh and Board of Police Commissioners Policy Update [PDF]. Last year there was major scrutiny around the Board of Police Commissioners’ abysmal failure in doing the bare minimum of the job required of them by the board’s governing legislation.
During the budget process earlier this year, one of the civilian commissioners, lawyer Gavin Giles, told his peers “it seems to me to be rather an end-run around a proper budgeting process, especially one which statutorily entails respect for the public, respect for the public purse, and respect for the advancement of the community generally, and the regularization of law and order through law enforcement within the community.” Because even if the board wanted to change things, there wasn’t enough time for them to do so.
One of the main issues with the police budget last (fiscal) year was the timing: The police budget came to council for consideration after about six months of work by city staff. If that work went into preparing the budget incorrectly, like preparing a budget without line item breakdowns, or if the final budget debate was the first major opportunity for open public feedback into the police budget—a few weeks before ratification—that is a horrible time to try and incorporate changes. By that point in the process, most of the work has been done. If the board's expectations or the public's input varies wildly from what staff have prepared, it’s hard to incorporate those changes. That is a huge problem for a board that is supposed to ensure the police budget it passes is in line with community needs and values.
The city is hoping to start the public engagement process for next year’s police budget earlier this year so community input can be better incorporated. And this is a practice that shouldn’t stop at the police budget. If the police department can do it (even if mandated by the Police Act), so too can other departments. How different could our city be if the department of public works had to incorporate public feedback into its budget at the start of the process this summer at a transportation standing committee meeting?
Wednesday’s Board of Police Commissioners started with a presentation about the Mass Casualty Commission findings and how they overlap with ongoing or past municipal efforts to reform police in the HRM. After that presentation, Giles asked staff how the board was supposed to implement the changes they want to when a lot of the things required are changes to provincial statutes. The city’s CAO, Cathie O’Toole, told the board that there are some things the city is able to control through bylaw changes, but that Giles is right: On a lot of things, the city is waiting for the province. The CAO then told the board she believes that work has started on the provincial side of things. She believes this because the government sent a survey for the board to fill out.
The Coast asked the province for an update on the work it was doing related to that survey. In an email, a Department of Justice spokesperson wrote “the department sent a letter to all municipalities reminding them of their obligations under the Police Act to have a Police Advisory Board or a Municipal Board of Police Commissioners in place. The letter asks municipalities to confirm that they follow current legislative requirements and is not related to potential changes.” The Coast has asked for a copy of the survey in question with the responses from the city, but did not receive one in time for deadline.
Giles said he was “a bit surprised and a whole lot disappointed” that the city would fill out a survey about the board without showing it to the board first. The CAO clarified that “survey” is a bit of a misnomer for what was sent by the province: It was more of a “do you have a police commission?” questionaire. O’Toole said it was shared with the chair of the board, Becky Kent. Kent, who regularly shares her fond recollections of spending time with police officers, being hosted by police organizations and learning about police activities. Kent—who does not regularly share any recollections of time spent with other participants in the justice system—did not show the survey to the civilian members of board. In the absence of complete transparency in municipal police reform, there is risk that Kent may inadvertently undermine the credibility of the police reform process.
At the meeting where Kent told her peers she responded to the province on the board’s behalf without telling the board, she also put forward a motion nominating herself and vice-chair Harry Critchley to be the BOPC’s representatives on the Intergrated Operating Model police report. Kent was also flagged as offside by the CAO for advocating for the police’s budget priorities at an inappropriate time. All of that starts to garner the perception that the police have someone on the inside putting a thumb on the scale. Which is unfortunate, because a lot of our systems of governance are built on perception.
In the MCC report, one of the recommendations is a return to “Peelian Principles” of policing. That is a reference to the start of the era of modern policing, which is based on an 1829 theory. These nine Peelian Principles are just as relevant now as when they were written. Number 8 instructs police “to recognize always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.” Essentially meaning: The only reason the justice system works is because we all buy into there being equal access to justice for all of us. If the police start enacting justice of their own accord, that trust could be eroded. That erosion, left unchecked, could eat away at the judiciary until, eventually, one of the three branches of Canadian democracy collapsed. No big deal.
Unfortunately, the Peelian Principles do not mention the legislative branch. Because if police were “to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers” of the legislative branch, they would have a mandatory internal policy for all officers to remove their firearms before entering City Hall unless they were doing an active police operation pertaining to the security of City Hall. By email, a Halifax Regional Police spokesperson wrote: “Since your question relates to policies, I ask you to please reach out to our access and privacy office."
And as for the RCMP:
Unfortunately for Kent, the city’s government is all a legislative branch, and the legislative branch has similar vulnerability. The legislative branch only works if we all believe it’s still working in our best interest. Kent is starting to cultivate the perception that the needs of police are the most important thing the city’s supposedly independent oversight body should be focusing on. Regardless of her intentions, that is a perception that causes erosion in trust. Because, for example, during HRP chief Dan Kinsella’s presentation Wednesday about the issues with recruitment and retention, Kent suggested that police recruits should be paid for their training. Should the city exploit the labour of their potential employees? Absolutely not. But in the context of the rest of Kent’s actions during this meeting, it also helps to form a foundation for the belief that her priority as chair of the HRM’s independent oversight body is police advocacy. Kent needs to be wary in her role as chair because if she does not work hard to dispel that perception, it will eventually lead to an erosion of trust. That erosion, left unchecked, could eat away at the legislative branch of government until eventually one of the three branches of Canadian democracy collapsed. Just in case you’re wondering why the reform work the police board is doing right now is so important—there has not yet been that erosion of trust.
The staff report about the MCC also says the board needs to be better at doing the work they need to do. For context, this report happened at a board meeting where they moved up the budget motion mentioned above so they could pass it during this meeting, as they usually don’t get to all of the agenda items. The board also passed a motion to have more meetings to deal with their increased workload. Commissioner Harry Critchley wanted to ask questions about three information reports on Wednesday’s agenda that were deferred from the last meeting. He was informed that he needed to tell the board at Wednesday’s meeting that he had questions, and then they could be put on the agenda for the Sept. 6 meeting with a notice for motion. Next meeting, expect questions on recommendations about race-based data collection, HRP prisoner care facilities and the HRP’s access to information request process.
As chair of the policy subcommittee, Critchley has his work cut out for him. The board told the subcommittee to focus on two policies: Extra/off-duty policing, and policing unhoused human beings. Hopefully Critchley has read the Peelian Principles. They are a short read, after all, just nine principles and three core values: 11 total sentences. And as the HRM works to reform policing, and reform how we oversee police in society, it may be worth starting every Board of Police Commissioners meeting with a reading of the ninth principle: “Recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”